Removing the veils

How is it that Moses is speaking face to face with God and yet cannot see God’s face?

God's face 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
God's face 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
ONE OF THE THINGS THAT DRIVES RABBIS CRAZY is the ubiquitous question at the Kiddush table by someone they don’t immediately recognize. “Rabbi!” the person exclaims. “Do you remember my name?” Oy vey. I probably officiated at a baby naming of their third cousin’s sister-in-law 20 years ago. “Umm, your face is familiar but I can’t recall your name…,” I stammer. And add, “At my age, my dear, I’m happy if I remember my own name!” Names and faces are the tools by which we humans communicate with one another. When we attach a face to a name, an identity is cemented in our minds. When the Nazis wanted to dehumanize the Jews, they took away their names and gave them numbers. When a regime wants to render its women invisible, it takes away their faces, giving them long black veils.
Just as we know each other by our names and faces, we mistakenly believe we can know God the same way. In the Torah portion of Ki Tisa, Moses wants to see God’s face. Although he already knows God’s name – (Exodus 6:2- 3): “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El-Shaddai but by my Name YHVH I was not yet known to them” – Moses wants to see God’s face.
But God is unwilling. “I will pass all my goodness before your face,” God says to Moses (33:18-19), “and I will proclaim my Name YHVH... but you cannot see my face.”
It’s a one-sided deal. Moses will show his face but God won’t. And yet, we know that God and Moses were already speaking “face to face, the way someone speaks with a close friend” (33:11).
How is it that Moses is speaking face to face with God and yet cannot see God’s face? Moses is attempting to achieve human dialogue with a divine partner and so must be totally open, revealing, and exposed. It is not necessary for the mysterious One to be the same. Benno Jacob, a late 19th century German Torah scholar, suggests that God never actually shows Moses His face even when they are speaking “face to face.” He notes that the verb used in verse 11 is speak, not see. The closest Moses can get to “seeing” God’s face is by speaking with God intimately, as if with family or a dear friend.
True interaction requires a readiness and a receptivity towards our conversation partner, an “uncovering” of ourselves. In Exodus 3, when God wants to talk to Moses at the burning bush, Moses hides his face, afraid to look. But now Moses is ready; he cannot see God’s face, but he can show his face to God. The result of this spiritual interaction is that Moses’ face becomes radiant with light; so radiant that he must cover it with a veil of some sort. The word for veil in this text – masveh – appears only this once and we don’t really know what kind of covering this is. He removes this masveh when he speaks face to face with God, and when he transmits the divine command to the people. His shining face is seen and, then, only after he has shared the divine experience with the tribes does he cover his face again and retreat into the tent.
It is not that the people were unable to look at his luminous face: he put the veil on only after he was done talking to them. Ha’emek Davar, the 19th century Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, observes that the usual way of “holy people” is to seclude themselves in their tent, separating themselves from the common folk; but Moses’ greatness was that he spoke with the people, taught them Torah and engaged with them, and only after that did he veil himself and go alone into his tent.
The New Testament gets it wrong when it proclaims in 2 Corinthians 3:13, “We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from gazing at it while the radiance was fading away.” Just the opposite: Moses’ gleaming face becomes a means of transmitting the divine glory to the people, and nowhere in the Torah text does it ever say that the brilliance diminishes. In fact, when Moses dies, the text tells us “his eyes were not darkened.” He kept that radiance until he died.
So how can we hope to see God’s face? In the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:25), we say: “May God’s face shine upon you…” But as much as we want to know God by having a “face” to put to God’s name, we cannot see it.
We cannot know God by naming a face, the way we know people. We can only hope to see the Divine light reflected in other people’s faces.
When we remove the veils covering our own faces, and open ourselves to true, honest interaction, we allow ourselves to become vessels for divine light.
We may not even be conscious of how much we are “shining.”
Benno Jacob writes, “[Moses] was not aware of his red cheeks and the “red glow” when God spoke to him. He only recognized it through the behavior of others”.
We all have the potential to receive light from others, and reflect it back again to those around us. That might be the only way for us to see God’s face shining in a dark world.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is founder and rabbinic director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning in Toronto, Canada. Noam Sienna is a senior at Brandeis University.